Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Statute of Limitations Under State Public Records Act, Holds Equitable Tolling Available
The Washington Supreme Court has held that a one-year statute of limitations applies when an agency responds that it does not have records responsive to a public records act request. But, the Court also acknowledged that “equitable tolling” could apply under appropriate facts. Belenski v. Jefferson County, No. 92161-0 (September 1, 2016). Belenski sued Jefferson County more than two years after the county responded that it had no records responsive to Belenski’s request for the county’s Internet access logs. An intermediate Court of Appeals dismissed Belenski’s Public Records Act (“PRA”) claim as time-barred under the state’s two-year “catch-all” statute of limitations in RCW 4.16.130; but did not decide whether the PRA’s shorter, one-year statute of limitations in RCW 42.56.550(6) would apply. On subsequent review, the Supreme Court concluded that the PRA’s one-year statute of limitations applied.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court observed that a tension had developed in the appellate divisions over the appropriate starting point for the statute of limitations when an agency’s response does not fall strictly within the two types of responses listed in RCW 42.56.550(6) (an agency’s claim of exemption or the last production of records on an installment basis). Read more here. The Court rejected a narrow reading of the statute:
The statute does not use terms like "either" or "only" to limit the triggering events, nor does it set forth a definitive list by numbering the events as (1) and (2). Instead, the statute of limitations' reference to bringing suit within one year of "the agency's claim of exemption or the last production of a record on a partial or installment basis" indicates that the legislature intended to impose a one year statute of limitations beginning on an agency's final, definitive response to a public records request. RCW 52.56.550(6). This theme of finality should apply to begin the statute of limitations for all possible responses under the PRA, not just the two expressly listed in RCW 42.56.550(6).
Belenski Opinion at 9 (emphasis added).
However, the Court remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of equitable tolling, finding that Belenski and amici had raised “legitimate concerns that allowing the statute of limitations to run based on an agency’s dishonest response could incentivize agencies to intentionally withhold information and then avoid liability due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.” Two dissenting justices would have held that Belenski’s suit was timely because the county’s alleged “false response” never triggered the statute of limitations.